Cutting the arteries of terrorism
By Steven Martinovich
Bullets and bombs have long been held to be the life’s blood of terrorism but without money it would be nearly impossible for terrorist groups to launch the spectacular attacks they hope to cow society with. Since September 11, 2001 the United States has paid particular attention to terrorist funding but the state of Israel, long experienced with attacks from a colorful gallery of terrorist groups, was the pioneer in tracking where the money comes from and where it eventually ends up. It was they who first realized that if you manage to cut off or limit the money that terrorist groups live off, you can diminish or eliminate their effectiveness.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Samuel M. Katz chronicle the history of Israel’s efforts in Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism's Money Masters, an insightful and often gripping account filled with characters straight out of a classic John le Carré novel. Joining the spies, high-tech equipment and soldiers, however, were people who became just as terrifying – sometimes even more so -- to the banks and bagmen of terrorism: accountants and lawyers.
The signing of the first Oslo Accord in 1993 created the Palestinian Authority and granted it limited self-governance in area of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In return, among its other obligations, the Palestinian leadership promised that it would end the bloody terrorist war it waged against Israel. The ink was barely dry on the deal when terrorists, often with the tacit or even approval of the PA, launched yet another wave of attacks. Aided by rogue states like Iran and Syria, more advanced arms and a seemingly limitless pool of suicide bombers, various terrorist groups launched attacks across Israel.
While the prowess of the Israeli military is well-known, there was a growing sense among some in the security apparatus that exclusively employing force was like playing an endless game of wack-a-mole, with another approach needed. Maverick soldier turned spy Meir Dagan realized that even low-tech attacks like suicide bombings required an infrastructure to function and any organization required money for logistics, salaries and supplies. Dagan’s strategy, which required fighting his own nation’s reliance on military strikes and Mossad assassinations, was to cut off the money and therefore stop the attacks before they could be launched. Thus Operation Harpoon was born.
Dagan and Israel’s money war saw some successes but it wasn’t until 9/11 that the United States bought in. The Bush administration unleashed not only bombs but new laws and experts in tracking money. Both nations, though the more innovative ideas seemed to come from Israel, realized that the legal system could be used against terrorism but targeting the banks that held and transferred the money the terrorist groups needed to fund their activities. Any terrorist attack that saw an American harmed immediately allowed a U.S. court jurisdiction to target banks even if they had no physical presence in the U.S.
As Harpoon relates, even banks openly friendly to terrorists quickly realized that bad publicity and massive legal bills were bad for business. The investigations also turned up the extensive links between criminal enterprises, drug smugglers, failed states like North Korea and Venezuela, and the terrorist groups. Success built upon success and lawyers who initially thought lawsuits targeting the bankers for terrorists were a high-hanging fruit quickly jumped in with massive lawsuits with hundred of plaintiffs in both the U.S. and Israel. Co-author Darshan-Leitner was one of the initial Israeli weapons that Dagan assisted and helped turn loose in his legal war.
Harpoon is not a step-by-step guide for countries and legal systems looking to enter the financial war against terrorism. Indeed, the reader won’t actually learn much about the nuts and bolts of Dagan’s campaign. They will, however, be taken for a fairly thrilling ride as Darshan-Leitner and Katz weave espionage, the law and fascinating personalities from all sides into a gripping true-crime story that continues on to this day. Harpoon shows that is possible to attack terrorism not only with raw force, but with the cudgel of the law. It will be up to the reader to determine which is the more effective weapon.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.